Can I terminate an employee’s employment once they’ve made false allegations of workplace bullying?
“We have here a classic example of a disgruntled and disaffected employee whose own behaviour was in question deflecting attention from their behaviour by making false allegations against others.”
In the case of Ms Linda Hanrick v Meridian Lawyers  FWC 3256, the Fair Work Commission rejected an unfair dismissal claim by a legal secretary whose employment had been terminated for making false allegations of workplace bullying.
During Ms Linda Hanrick’s employment, she was made aware of complaints that had been made against her by colleagues. As is not uncommon, Ms Hanrick began alleging various instances of workplace bullying against her colleagues. For example, Ms Hanrick:
- Accused a senior partner of targeting her and her family;
- Accused another employee of referring to her as a “cat” and another of calling her a “chook”; and
- Even more bizarrely, accused an employee of strategically placing Law Society Journals on a side table during a meeting. Ms Hanrick claimed this was done as a strategic ploy to unsettle her as the Law Society Journal’s initials were close to her own initials (LJH).
After investigating Ms Hanrick’s allegations, the employer formed the view that they were unsubstantiated and an attempt to divert attention from Ms Hanrick’s own inappropriate workplace behaviours. Her employer determined that Ms Hanrick had made false complaints of bullying and, accordingly, terminated her employment for serious misconduct.
The Fair Work Commission (Commission) agreed with the employer and held that the decision to dismiss Ms Hanrick was not harsh, unjust or unreasonable either substantively or procedurally. Critically, the Commission found that false allegations of bullying were capable of constituting serious misconduct.
Deputy President Sams, who presided over the matter at first instance, agreed that Ms Hanrick’s allegations were unsubstantiated. He found that Ms Hanrick had “[drawn] nonsensical conclusions from totally unrelated events” and “made up allegations which were utterly implausible or preposterous”.
Ms Hanrick sought to appeal Deputy President Sams’ decision in the Full Bench of the Commission but permission to appeal was refused.
- The key lesson from this decision is that making demonstrably false allegations in relation to co-workers can constitute serious misconduct and may warrant summary dismissal.
- However, it is important to note the employer in this case investigated the claims thoroughly and afforded Ms Hanrick procedural fairness before deciding to terminate her employment. It followed a rigorous process and ensured that Ms Hanrick was warned on numerous occasions that her employment could be terminated if she persisted with her claims and they were found to be false.
- Employers should also be mindful of the general protections provisions of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) when contemplating termination of employment due to an employee’s (false) complaint.
  FWCFB 4590
Author: James Remington